Everyday Authoritarianism

Moya Lothian-McLean has recently written an op-ed for the New York Times, exploring Boris Johnson’s increasingly authoritarian premiership. It has since rattled a bunch of conservative commentators, such as think tank stooge Robert Colvile:

Even by the @nytimes‘s standards, this is extraordinary. Basically accusing Johnson of being Putin/Erdogan, on the front page of its international edition.

There are many reasons to criticise Boris. But ‘effectively banning protest in England and Wales’? Seeking to ‘transcend the constraints of democracy’? What the hell are they smoking over there?

Originally tweeted by Robert Colvile (@rcolvile) on January 12, 2022.

I found the Twitter tantrums quite telling. Lothian-McLean is repeatedly accused of hyperbole and mistaken for a hysterical American who doesn’t know anything about the reality of life in England. In truth, she’s not saying anything that many left-wing commentators in this country haven’t been saying constantly over recent years, whether in newspapers or loudly at demonstrations demanding that we #KillTheBill. But the assumption by some that Lothian-McLean is an American who doesn’t know about a UK reality — that is, the assumption she’s an ill-informed outsider rather than someone currently living in the UK — sums up precisely what Boris’s authoritarian streak is leaning into.

On the one hand, Boris has always gotten away with a lot because we falsely think authoritarians can’t be bumbling incompetents. Trump disproved that, of course, and he also proved that Western demagogues can easily be friends with “foreign” leaders who have similar principles, from North Korea to Brazil and elsewhere.

This has produced a kind of cognitive dissonance in our understanding of authoritarianism. After all, ever since Hitler’s rise to power, the stereotype of an authoritarian in the Anglophone world has been an angry man speaking a foreign language. That angry man is also likely to be an isolated egotist who isn’t interested in alliances so much as world domination for their particular world view.

We forget, of course, that this describes England very well, from the age of empire onwards. And yet, even as the British Empire dwindled, the full ascendency of global capitalism at the end of the twentieth century has occasioned a domination of another sort (with America primarily at the helm). It was once the case that authoritarians were seen as isolated egotists, for instance, but with capitalism everywhere, authoritarians have a lot more to agree upon. Contrary to our prejudice, not all authoritarians make demands outside of or on the fringes of capitalism. Colvile tellingly nods to Putin and Erdogan, for example, as two authoritarians from Middle Eastern or former Soviet countries, supposedly on the fringes of capitalism, but the point is precisely that a localised authoritarianism that is resistant to a global hegemony is a dwindling concern and says nothing of the global hegemony itself, which asserts the dominance of an unchanging capitalist realism.

This is why we saw Trump, the most isolated authoritarian egotist in living memory, nonetheless making strange friends around the world, who recognized that his authoritarianism was compatible with their own. Even as they engaged in petty posturing and dick measuring, trading off their zany individual personalities, their political programmes were almost indistinguishable nonetheless.

I’ve written about this once before. That many of our most authoritarian leaders are zany caricatures of themselves doesn’t amount to a contradiction. “Zaniness is the only aesthetic category in our contemporary repertoire explicitly about this politically ambiguous intersection of cultural and occupational performance, acting and service, playing and labouring”, according to Sianne Ngai. Zaniness is a tool for transforming political ideals into personal quirks, giving us individual jokers to laugh at, thereby excusing systemic fuck-ups as individual incompetency rather than providing us with opportunities to skewer the system at large, which they are often acting as the chief representatives of.

Boris Johnson is a case in point. People ask how this joke of a man is so resilient. How does he survive crisis after crisis? How is this big of an idiot such a bullet-proof politician? Because he perfectly represents the status quo. It is why many on the centre-left prefer Keir Starmer. He too is clearly incompetent, but in being more representative of a failing order — as a former lawyer and knight of the realm, no less — he is more resilient in our current system.

Others are more easily challenged and fallible precisely because they represent alternatives.

This is where our present authoritarianism has come from. Authoritarianism’s very purpose is to enforce a particular status quo and actively reduce alternatives to it, and both in their zaniness and in their policies, this reflects the position of our current government in the UK to a tee. Many continue to mourn the failure of Jeremy Corbyn in this regard, but his downfall was like that of a canary in a coal mine. The entire system — not just the demarcated political opposition — came out in force to smother his chances and the changes he represented. It was in response to Corbyn that England’s turned up the heat on its authoritarian simmer. Though Corbyn is now all but absent from public life, this heat hasn’t dissipated. It is on high alert, ready to snuff out any future alternative that might arise in his place.

And so, although Colvile and others might find accusations of authoritarianism incredulous, can they deny that what they believe in, above all else, is the conservation of their own supremacy and their own right to rule, which has been more under threat this past decade than at any other time over the last fifty years? Since the financial crash, the gloves have started to come off. Their final victory was less final than they first thought. A creeping authoritarianism is all they have left to quell the steadily rising tide of widespread dissent. To deny that, to dismiss it as hyperbole, only shows what side you’re on.

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